With youth participation waning and football facing increased concerns over head trauma, the future of the game could well come down to the work being done in a windowless room in a generic suburban Chicago office building.
That’s where Riddell, the nation’s largest football equipment manufacturer, is testing out design innovations and racing its competitors to build a safer helmet.
“There is a sense of urgency to advance the protective capabilities of football helmets,” said Thad Ide, senior vice president of product development for Riddell.
From “Friday Night Lights” to the Super Bowl, football remains the quintessential American sport, with millions of participants and fans. But scientific evidence linking concussions and less-severe head injuries in football players to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease, has accelerated the once sleepy science of helmet technology into a gridiron moonshot.
The nexus of that quest is in Illinois, home to Riddell and Schutt, which dominate the half-billion-dollar football helmet market. About 37 percent of NFL players use Schutt helmets, while 60 percent wear Riddell, according to the companies.
Seeking to protect players, and its market share, Riddell is funneling increased resources into research and development, from 3-D scanning technology and engineers scribbling formulas on a whiteboard to a dungeonlike testing lab where helmets are smashed, dropped, frozen and heated to test the limits of their protective capabilities.
Schutt and upstarts like Seattle-based Vicis are similarly engaged in efforts to develop a better helmet as football confronts what some consider to be an existential threat in CTE.
Youth football participation has declined by 12 percent nationwide over the last five years, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, a manufacturers trade group.
At the high school level, football participation declined nearly 4 percent nationwide over the last five years, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.
The NFL has implemented dozens of rule changes since 2002 designed to reduce the risk of injuries, especially to the head and neck. Those changes include prohibiting a runner or tackler from initiating contact against an opponent with the top, or crown, of his helmet.
NFL players are allowed to wear any helmet certified to comply with the requirements of the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment, according to the league.
Results from the league’s 2017 helmet lab testing found Schutt and Riddell were well-represented among the top performers, but the top helmet was a newcomer: the Vicis Zero1, which features a soft outer shell and an underlying layer of columns designed to reduce head trauma from collisions.
Riddell and Schutt have been engaged in patent infringement lawsuits since 2008, with Schutt filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2010 after losing a $29 million judgment to Riddell. Los Angeles-based Platinum Equity acquired Schutt in an auction for a reported $33 million.
Riddell is part of BRG Sports, which is owned by Fenway Partners, a private equity firm based in New York.
Founded in 1929, Riddell has always been headquartered in the Chicago area. Its equipment is manufactured at a newly opened plant in North Ridgeville, Ohio.
Riddell invented the modern hard-shell football helmet in 1939 and has been refining it ever since. The company’s latest innovation is the Precision-Fit, which uses a 3-D scanner to custom-design the helmet and padding to the individual head. Introduced last spring, Precision-Fit helmets, which cost $1,750 each, are worn by 120 NFL players and 300 college players.
Schutt Sports, a century-old company headquartered in southern Illinois, has the second-largest helmet share in the NFL. Helmets are manufactured in Illinois, with a reconditioning facility in Easton, Pa.
This year, Schutt introduced the F7, which features “Tektonic Plates” at the crown and back of the helmet that move independently of the shell to improve impact absorption and reduce rotational forces. The F7 retails for $975 — Schutt’s most expensive helmet ever — but the company makes clear the limits of its protective capabilities with a disclaimer on its website:
“Our position is pretty clear,” said Robert Erb, president and CEO of Schutt. “We put it on every helmet in the form of a warning label.”
A former Ohio high school football coach, Erb has led Schutt for 10 years. He said innovation is driving football helmet manufacturers, with everybody searching for new materials that are lighter and offer greater energy absorption. Despite intense competition from old and new players, he believes the industry has yet to make a quantum leap.
“We haven’t experienced the game-changing technology or disruption,” Erb said. “It’s hard to imagine exactly what that would be.”
While Erb would not disclose sales for the privately held company, he said the helmet market is not growing and its challenges are complex — everything from flat sales and patent litigation to rising insurance premiums.
“With respect to the market realities, it is a tough business,” Erb said. “It’s not for the faint of heart.”
Dave Marver, CEO and co-founder of Vicis, previously served as CEO of Cardiac Science Corp., a maker of automatic external defibrillators.
Launched with $40 million in initial funding, Vicis is in its rookie season in the NFL, with 50 players moving to the innovative soft-shell design of its Zero1 helmet.
“We do think there’s an opportunity for a return,” Marver said. “If you can come in with a disruptive technology that’s clearly better, given the profound need that’s out there, I think there’s an opportunity for a business to do that and do well.”
The inaugural Vicis helmet sells for $1,500 and was designed for elite NFL and major college players. Vicis is looking to scale up over the next four or five years, and it plans to roll out a youth model within two years.
While the numbers are small, its impact on the helmet market is already being felt, Marver said.
“We think that our presence is catalyzing others to invest more in R&D, and that’s just going to benefit everybody,” he said.